Expanding Global Challenges to Democracy-Building Roles of NGOs

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June 10, 2015; Aswat Masriya

If you look hard enough, you’ll find numerous examples of governments around the world clamping down on nonprofits not because they are misspending money, but because they might be engaging democracy-building activities that are not welcome by those in power.

The latest example comes from Egypt, where the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies was visited by a committee from the Egyptian government’s Ministry of Social Solidarity. The Institute was not given any explanation, much less an explicit accusation of why it was targeted. Instead, the three-member committee from the Ministry simply showed paperwork explaining that they were to launch an investigation of the NGO. In December, the Institute had already moved its regional and international programs out of Egypt, keeping only its Egypt program in the country, due to what it said were “ongoing threats to human rights organizations and the declaration of war on civil society.”

The risk to NGOs is serious. Last September, the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi amended the penal code to permit the government to sentence people to life in prison or even death if charged with receiving foreign funds for the purpose of “harming the state.”

It may seem inconsequential, but the attack on foreign funding, particularly funding from sources in the U.S., has more widespread support than many readers might think. For example, the Azerbaijan Press Agency just put out an analysis that the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy (along with the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute) has been connected to “all the global and tragic events happening from the bombing of Milosevic’s Serbia in 2000 to the ongoing civil war in the Ukraine.” [Note: NATO’s bombing of Serbia was actually in 1999.]

Undoubtedly, governments that lean toward the totalitarian side of things aren’t likely to appreciate funding from outside entities for NGOs that might be pushing for democratic reforms, particularly those associated with the U.S. government. Azerbaijan is probably less than thrilled with NED grants to indigenous NGOs like the Alliance of Woman for Civil Society, the Azerbaijan Lawyers Association, Women’s Media Watch Azerbaijan, and others generally focused on press freedoms, humanitarian issues, election monitoring—the kinds of NGO activities that governments leaning toward the totalitarian find classifiable as the “opposition” by definition.

Given this country’s many alliances with nations that are just as repressive as Azerbaijan, a U.S. government-funded nonprofit dedicated to promoting democracy may seem like an anachronism, but NED funds groups in Azerbaijan and elsewhere that would be generally without local financial support otherwise. Presumably, the Azerbaijani government is equally unhappy with the reporting that appears in NED’s Democracy Digest, including news that Azerbaijan spent $2.3 million in 2013 and $4 million in 2014 on U.S. lobbyists, including a monthly retainer for the Podesta Group, founded and headed by Tony Podesta, the brother of the John Podesta who is running Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The NED is funded by the U.S. government, but its total appropriation shrunk between FY2014 and FY2015 from $135 million to $104 million. Annually, it makes around 1,000 to 1,200 grants averaging $50,000 apiece. Grants to Azerbaijani NGOs in 2013 totaled roughly $1 million, not a huge amount more than the $668,000 spent by the Open Society Foundations in Azerbaijan that year. OSF’s commitment to democracy building in the former component nations of the Soviet Union is probably little more popular than NED’s.

It doesn’t, however, take funding from the National Endowment for Democracy—or even OSF—to spur the enmity of some governments, and they don’t need to be totalitarian. For example, draft legislation from the new right-wing government in Israel would implement a 45 percent tax on foreign donations to Israeli NGOs. Ayelet Shaked, the Netanyahu government’s Justice Minister from the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, accuses foreign-funded NGOs of “eroding the legitimacy of Israel to exist as a Jewish and Democratic state.” It isn’t difficult to imagine the devastating impact of a 45 percent tax on NGOs. Larger groups such as B’tselem might shrink but survive, while others would go out of business. Under the draft law, the government could give exemptions to some NGOs, which would be the likely scenario for the several NGOs that receive funding from U.S. sources to work on building and strengthening Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The major economic and political competitor with the U.S., China, is also tightening the screws on NGOs. According to Andrew Browne in an essay in the Wall Street Journal, “A newly proposed law [being considered by Chinese president Xi Jinping’s government] would put the entire foreign nonprofit sector under police administration, effectively treating such groups as potential enemies of the state.” The draft law defines NGOs so very loosely that it would apply to American professors invited to lecture in China as well as to overseas dance troupes invited to perform. After weeks of discussion, 45 American business and professional organizations have signed a letter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress indicating that the new NGO law could harm U.S.-China relations. For trade groups like the American Petroleum Association and the Motion Picture Association to weigh in on NGO issues indicates just how broadly restrictive the proposed Chinese regulations would be.

Azerbaijan and other countries might be disturbed by the grantmaking of the National Endowment for Democracy, but the reality is that civil society is under broad attack in a wide variety of nations. The justifications might be foreign intrusion or political opposition, but the consistent objection from country to country is the core mission of civil society—to serve as a democratic voice for populations that don’t always toe the line of national government powers. The message for U.S. nonprofits is twofold: Nonprofits have to speak up for civil society protections around the world, and they must remember to fight to protect the independence of civil society organizations at home so that they aren’t manipulated or dictated to by governments or by the powerful institutions of the nation’s ultra-wealthy elite.—Rick Cohen